1 Among his favorite books was The Imitation of Christ by the late medieval mystic Thomas à Kempis which Bernini used to read a chapter to his family in the evenings. (Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque 1966)
2 The main intellectual problem of the seventeenth century as Hibbard describes is it is the separation of the “true” from the “false”.
3 Bernini’s passion in invention and fusion of art into one extraordinary theatrical effect is also well proofed by the great number of books in his library. His library’s close ties to geometry and mechanics show how his work of art and architecture is driven from this passion.
4 The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. deBeer(Oxford, 1955),II, 261.
5 Bernini played a significant role in unifying the Liberal Arts
6 Any belief, method, or philosophy that has a central emphasis on the human realm. The term is most commonly applied to the cultural movement in Renaissance Europe characterized by a revival of Classical letters, an individualistic and critical spirit, and a shift of emphasis from religious to secular concerns. This movement dates to the 13th century and the work of the Florentine scholar-statesman Brunetto Latini. (Britannica concise encyclopedia 2006)
7 Pope Alexander VII was the pope who commissioned Bernini to design St. Peter’s Square Colonnade. His patronage of art and scholarship was remarkable.
8 “The divinity known as Cybele( Kybele in Greek), as the Great Mother, or simply as Mother, is one of the most intriguing figures in the religious life of the ancient Mediterranean world. Evidence for human denotation to this goddess extends from the early first millennium B.C., the earliest ear to produce material dearly indicating worship of the mother deity, to the final days of paganism in the Roman Empire in the fifth century C. E. We encounter the Mother Goddess most vividly in the poetry, hymns, and religious monuments of ancient Greece and Rome, but her original home was Anatolia (modern Turkey)”. (Roller 1999)).
9 In their old sequence indicated by numbers in a I7th century hand.
10 For example, “the Paolina was the site of the annual celebration of the Easter Sepulchre. Here the consecrated Host was reserved in a temporary structure that symbolized Christ’s tomb. On Holy Thursday, after mass in the Cappella Sistina, the consecrated Host was brought in procession to and buried in the Paolina. It remained there, entombed and adored, until the next day, Good Fri-day, when it was carried in procession back to the Sistina for the mass of the Pre-sanctified Host. After the Thursday Reservation, the pope went in procession to the Benediction Loggia, where the bull “In Cena Domini” was read, in Latin and Italian, to the people gathered in Piazza San Pietro. The bull, which expelled all heretics, was also symbolically enacted. To signify the expulsion, lighted tapers were extinguished when cast down to the crowd below. There followed a papal benediction and plenary indulgence for all gathered in the square. The symbolic burial of Christ, the expulsion of heretics, and the papal benediction reaffirmed the pope’s role as mediator of Eucharistic doctrines central to the Church and papal authority. The proximity of the Paolina to the Sistina and the Benediction Loggia, the three spaces involved in these events, was essential to the successful performance of the annual ceremony.” (Kuntz Jun., 2003)
11 One major difficulty in portrait sculptures is the matter of color. How is the impression of color communicated in white marble? Bernini achieved the glow of life on face of the sculpture by the use of texture. Another great difficulty facing the portrait sculptor is the abbreviated form of the bust itself. Bernini’s satisfactory solution is to imply in one way or another that the body is still there. (Wallace 1970)
Bernini’s Piazza di San Pietro
God’s Drama of Birth
by Sima Rhend
Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed St Peter’s Piazza as the ultimate stage for the divine performance of worship, where he employed all the physical and metaphysical elements to create his overwhelming supra-real theatrical effect; giving life to all elements of architecture.
He invited ninety six saints and martyrs, riding on back of the oval colonnades, to witness this celebration of human act and ingenuity. We can then see that the design of St Peter’s forecourt is not coming from a mind which has unquestioningly accepted the current philosophies and theologies of absolute church and state. Work of Bernini in St Peter’s is in respect of the humankind as opposed to confirmation of the Church authority. Human body and human practice are the essential images behind this planning that got the chance to be built in their extreme state, with Bernini’s skinful mind and humanistic patronage of Pope Alexander VII (A. Napier 1992). The architect’s theatrical passion led to circular design of the colonnades, facilitating the incredible drama of human act to be played in the piazza and symbolizing divine-like human ability of giving birth. Baroque passion of creating illusion and love of revealing the truth got manifested through the art work of Bernini and ascended to animation of such huge piece of architecture. Vivid planning and detailing work of Bernini gave life to the Mother Church of Christianity and placed the artist in God’s poison of life creation. Bernini himself was well aware of this and his design in St Peter’s is a direct response to his personal passion, as God, and not those of the Counter-Reformation Church.
Art and Faith, the Popes’ favorite Known as a deeply religious man at his time and long after up until now, Bernini’s religious believes appear to be employed by his professional benefit. A rapid glance over what has been written about Bernini’s religious believes suggests a quite religious portrait of him. Rudolf Wittkower in “Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque”, in detail talks about Bernini’s religious habits like going to Mass every morning for forty years and other examples of Bernini spending time in prayer. Wittkower continues further to the point that he states: “it is impossible to divorce Bernini’s views on art from his religious belief” (Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque 1966). This bold statement by Wittkower leads to further inquiry about specifications of Bernini’s religious belief and its direct and inseparable influence on his art. As a starting point toward searching for finer clues about Bernini’s religious belief origins, looking at his reading interests seems appropriate, mysterious and somewhat exciting. There exists an inventory of Bernini’s personal library that has recently been brought up. Sarah McPhee’s findings about Gian Lorenzo’s library give us considerable clues to the extent and nature of Bernini’s intellectual pursuits. Based on the books listed in this inventory there is clear evidence of Bernini’s great interest in mathematics, mechanics, architecture, and history, but this is not all that pops out this inventory. In terms of religious texts Sarah McPhee finds the library “One which is exceptionally strong in literature includes surprisingly little religion and no philosophy” (McPhee, Bernini’s Books Jul., 2000).1 There are also other sources that similarly suggest a pale presence of intellectual and influential religious belief in Bernini’s professional world. Howard Hibbard describes Bernini’s religious belief as: “He unquestioningly accepted the current philosophies and theologies of absolute church and state, neither was a speculative thinker” and his intellectual role as “Bernini cannot be claimed to have played even a part the intellectual history of his age” (Hibbard 1966).2 None of the existing sources point out the direct application and influence of Bernini’s religious belief on his art creation. On the other hand there are contradictory examples of his art motivated with irreligious aspects of his real life. Before his marriage at the Pope’s request, Gian Lorenzo had an affair with, Constanza Bonarelli, the wife of another artist who Bernini sculpted her passionate nature in a life size portrait bust (Fig. 1) (Wallace 1970). It seems that his religious attitude has greatly influenced his patrons and clients rather his personal life and work of art. His Catholic look along with his talent made him a Counter-Reformation Catholic Church favorite, letting him serve eight popes and almost uninterrupted professional success.
Baroque Magic and Realism Bernini’s art offers qualities beyond religious representations. What interests Bernini is the magic of religion and through his magical work he tries to reveal hidden reality of what happens in a spiritual act. There are numerous examples, ranging in scale from small details of sculptures to drawings or designing a church, of Bernini treating religious works in a quite different manner from his predecessors. He gives life to the work. The work of art now is not representational and lives its own life.
In the world of Bernini, the seventeenth century Italy, there is a cultural shift in the way Church is conceived. The Renaissance Church was about worship of God while one was separated from the everyday life and placed somewhere special. In this sense, Howard Hibbard describes the Renaissance Church as a monumental shrine (Hibbard 1966) which was a place treated with idealization and distanced from life routines. During the transitional period from Renaissance to Baroque this Renaissance idealization distance was interrupted and display of the truth became essential to the work of art. The art of Church during this period can be characterized by: (i) simplicity, clarity and intelligibility, (ii) realistic interpretation, and (iii) emotional stimulus to piety (Dooley 1995). Thus the new art emerged with the realism in accompany, during the transitional period, and prepared the ground for Baroque’s love of revealing of the truth. Bernini’s church art then takes this realism to an extreme till the art becomes the actual event and the mysterious reality of religious act is revealed. Wittkower (Wittkower, Art and architecture in Italy, 1600 to 1750 1958) talks about Bernini’s vivid realism (Fig.2) in and alteration of catholic meanings:
“Since the jubilant angles, superior beings who dwell in a zone inaccessible to the faithful, are treated with extreme realism, they conjure up full and breathing life. Thus whenever he enters the church the worshiper participates in the ‘mystery in action’… the entire church is submitted to, and dominated by, this particular event, and the whole interior has become its stage.”
Bernini’s passionate interest in the theater seems to be the real motivation of his art of religious commissions. Here is a counter argument to that of Wittkower’s –as mentioned in the first part– that what is impossible to divorce, from Bernini’s views on art, is his theatrical passion and not his religious belief. Robert Fahrner and William Kleb (Fahrner Mar., 1973) explain this extreme passion3 as “ a Publique Opera(for so they call those shows of that kind), wherein he painted the scenes, cut the Statues, invented the Engines, composed the Musique, wrote the Comedy, and built the Theater all himself.”4 Rudolph Wittkower, in Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 to 1750, similarly explains this total desire and ability of Bernini as “fusion of arts into one overwhelming effect”5. The etching by Remigio Cantagallina (Fig. 3) can illustrate the spectacular design of Bernini’s stage mechanism and special effect at his time. The fire which Bernini arranged on the stage is well known example of him creating a supra-real world (Fig.4) in which “the transition seems obliterated between real and imaginary space, past and present, phenomenal and actual existence, life and death” (Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque 1966).
In study of Bernini’s theater, Robert Fahrner and William Kleb directly state that: “there is no evidence of an overall emblematic meaning or ritualistic purpose in them” (Fahrner Mar., 1973). Bernini’s joy of creation, generation of reality, is the driving force of his architecture as opposed to celebration of religious mysteries. According to Wittkower:
This urge to use all the means of illusion in the theater as well as in religious imagery, to try and transport the individual into another reality, seems ultimately connected with the polarity between self-reliance and authority, reason and faith, which afflicted western man seriously for the first time in the seventeenth century: it was the road of escape for those who began to doubt.
The human body behind Planning of St Peter’s Over three centuries past after planning of St. Peter`s Piazza (Fig. 5) by Bernini, artist`s intentions behind the form and planning of the piazza are still blurred and ambiguous. One possibility, coming from Kiato`s super detailed study of the evolutionary process of planning the piazza, suggests that the oval shape of the forecourt comes from what Bernini felt to be the “perfect beauty of the circle” (Fig. 6) (Kitao 1974). The circular shape perhaps is not only derived from a religious emblematic tradition but also is coming from humanistic 6 concerns of both Bernini and Pope Alexander VII7, his patron. A quick flashback to the inventory of Bernini’s personal library gives us enough excuse to further investigate Bernini’s humanistic point of view and its impact on his architecture and specifically design of the St Peter’s forecourt. Bernini’s library contains quite a number of encyclopedic texts on human behavior and the world’s history. Sarah McPhee recalls some of the titles that range from “Gaspare Bugati’s Historia universal to Doglione’s Compendio historico and Giovanni Aubano’s Costumi recording the customs, laws, and behaviour of people from Ethiopia to India” (McPhee, Bernini’s Books Jul., 2000). Bernini’s inspiration by human body in planning of St Peter’s colonnade extends to a degree that according to Charles Scribner III: “Nowhere is his creed of architectural humanism more clearly articulated then his colonnade for St Peter’s” (Scribner 1991).
As argued by Napier, in “Foreign bodies: performance, art, and symbolic anthropology”, the origin of Piazza`s oval shape is that image of “ the uterus, the womb of the world inverted on the altar of God, an image that was known in the Renaissance to those familiar with Gnostic thought ” (Napier 1992). Gnostic were known to be “the intellectual party to the Church” (Hastings 1914). This group was trying to encourage intellectuals to Christianity. As stated by Hastings, they were “to resolve the Christian message into a philosophy acceptable to cultivated minds” (Hastings 1914). Napier further on claims that Bernini’s intent behind the oval shape of St Peter’s forecourt, is coming from Gnostic thought in which he sees the role of Catholic Church as a mother to all other churches (Napier 1992). Bernini himself described his concetto as: “the arms of Mother Church stretching out to receive Catholics, so as to confirm them in their faith” (Scribner 1991). David Napier also points out to a historical discovery at the time of Bernini as evidence to back up his claim; “the dramatic discovery at the very entrance to St Peter’s in 1609 of a Roman sanctuary to Cybele8, the Mother Earth
6. Gian Lorenzo Bernini. First proposal for circular porticoes, The Vatican Biblioteca, 1665-67
from whose womb emerges all life, provided a true catalyst for such thinking” (Napier 1992). The Gnostic intaglios, shown in (Fig.7), “depict an altar upon which stands a womb with a key” (Napier 1992). Bernini’s humanistic interests then appears to led him bring and redefine ancient and even oriental context to the Catholic Church, with introducing new symbolism to the Church (Fig. 8). David Napier (A. Napier 1992), believes that the plan for St Peter’s Piazza is driven from the shape of the womb and explains it:
“Compared with a view of the Piazza Obliqua, the Gnostic icon seems of tangential relevance at best, until we consider the piazza design as it would have been view from Saint Peter’s itself, or in any of the early representations illustrating the shape originally intended by Alexander VII after his and Bernini’s private deliberations. At once we recognize the superficial similarity of the two shapes. The question, then, must be asked whether or not, or to what extent the meaning of the piazza corresponds to the Gnostic image. To my mind, there is no doubt that the analogy is direct and complete.”
A contemporary criticism made by one belonged to the “most reactionary ecclesiastical circle of the time” (Wittkower, A Counter-Project to Bernini’s “Piazza di San Pietro” Oct., 1939 – Jan., 1940) to Bernini’s planning of the St Peter’s colonnade and the forecourt indicating other possible humanistic grounds of the design. The criticism is formed by set of twenty five drawings which propose objections to Bernini’s design of the piazza mostly from a very Catholic point of view. The drawing set (Fig.9 – 14) points out theological errors of Bernini’s design and suggests corrections based on medieval symbolism. Drawing I9 shows that, as opposed to the perfect Renaissance figure of the Christ body forming plan of the piazza,
Bernini have had other intentions in mind. From his contemporary critic’s deformed body interpretation, we can conclude that Bernini’s intentions were of a different nature from the pure Catholic architecture and symbolism. In drawing I and II the critic is trying to compare Bernini’s deflected plan (Fig.9) to the right and legitimate one (Fig.10). Another theological error in eyes of the ecclesiastic critic is well interpreted by Wittkower (Wittkower, A Counter-Project to Bernini’s “Piazza di San Pietro” Oct., 1939 – Jan., 1940):
“The top segment touches the wall at the entrance to the church, and on it stands in the ground-plan of St. Peter’s the figure of Christ, bearing the stigmata, with his arms out-stretched. According to tradition the cross-shaped basilica symbolizes Christ crucified. The whole drawing now appears as a naive illustration of the words of the Psalmist.”(Fig.11) “In contrast to this the drawing opposite, with the plan of Bernini’s piazza dispenses with all symbolical allusions.” (Fig.12)
Rudolf Wittkower talks about Bernini’s deviation from the traditional design of Catholic places and his contemporary reactions to such changes: “Bernini himself had started by basing his plans on the traditional scheme of attaching arcades to palaces. And criticism was naturally aroused as soon as he departed from this tradition” (Wittkower, A Counter-Project to Bernini’s “Piazza di San Pietro” Oct., 1939 – Jan., 1940). In design of the forecourt for St Peter’s he has given something to the public as profound as those given to Saints and Popes. This valued populous quality is perhaps more amplified in St Peter’s Piazza as he was inspired by earlier plans for the piazza by Alberti. Bernini’s true religious belief I suppose to be more of a modern humanistic nature rather than those of the Counter- Reformation Catholics.
9. Drawing I, Criticism of Bernini’s plan, 17th century
10. Drawing II, Counter Project to plan, 17th Century
11. Drawing III, Ground plan of the counter project, 17th century
12. Drawing IV, Critical visual in Bernini’s ground plan, 17th century
13. Drawing V, St. Peter between the Heavenly and Earthly Spheres
14.Drawing VI, Counter project, 17th Century
Directing the Divine Theater Baroque was a period of human exploration and freedom; a period of great human advancement. Bernini as an influential architect and artist was a key part to this history. Moreover offering symbolic humanistic aspects, the proposed form by him for the Piazza, is a reminder of the Roman Amphitheater, a place for human action and participation. The plan is highly informed by theatrical aspects and the free standing colonnade further intensifies this theatrical gesture to where the pope Alexander VII, in his own dairy calls it “teatro” (Scribner 1991). But the theatrical scene in St Peter’s forecourt differs from an ancient theater by its dynamics. As opposed to the Roman Theater where the spectator is seated and passively positioned, here, in Bernini’s plan, spectator is the one who plays the drama. Beholder in world of Bernini is given life and has been treated actively. Bernini’s humanistic desires derive his design to appreciate human and human act. It is the human body and human practice that forms Bernini’s architecture of St Peter’s and his art in a broader sense.
15. Circus Maximus, University of Missouri, 2002
Designed for ceremony, the piazza in St Peter’s, hosts important papal and liturgical rituals 10. Where rituals are animated by architecture of the place; the crowd movement follows elliptical movement of the court formed by colonnades. Ceremonial crowd movement mimics movement of child in mother’s womb; Christ in Virgin’s womb; children of Christ in Mother Church’s womb. But is this, in fact, the only image that upon which the piazza is based? Moving a step beyond symbolic representations, we come across an important historical background of the site that St Peter’s court occupies. According to Adam Mizrahi: “The earliest structure known to occupy the site was a large elliptical stadium or circus, believed to be shaped much like Circus Maximus” (Fig.15 & Fig.16) (Mizrahi 2009). The circus gained its monumental form under Emperor Nero and was known as Nero’s Circus (Mizrahi 2009). It is not unlikely that the elliptical shape of Circus Nero’s (Fig. 17) along with Alberti’s influence of admiration of the populous has influenced Bernini, to plan the piazza as an ancient form of a public space, gifted to the people. Crowd movement here again follows similar pattern of the circus activities. But what makes this theory more believable is woven to the old Christians’ history in Rome. According to Mirzahi:
“It is also in Nero’s Circus that a very important event took place altering the significance and history of the site forever. Following the great fire of 64 AD, which destroyed much of Rome, Christians were persecuted and used as scapegoats for the massive disaster. Their deaths were turned into sport as was common in ancient times, and it was in Nero’s Circus that many Christians were executed for sport.” (Mizrahi 2009)
Such shaking history may have touched fragile and senate soul of the artist and inspired him to design the piazza as a gift, a compensation offering to the people who suffered from that history. Bernini’s plan of St Peter’s then, as the gifted architecture to site and Christian of Rome, sets a permanent stage for replaying the drama of Nero’s Circus, for wailing and for honoring (Fig.18).
Giving life to the piece of architecture is the essential thought, by Bernini, in design of St. Peter’s fore court. While many scholars debate the artist’s intension-the pre-assumption made based on Bernini’s theological belief of accepting unquestionable authority of the church- confirming papal authority is not then the dominant image of St Peter’s. As discussed earlier in the paper, Bernini’s passion for theater and revealing the truth through ultimate illusion and a total overwhelming effect shows up in design of the piazza. He is there to replace the reality by a different dream-like reality. Then the piazza serves as a stage for people and architecture to come together in a dramatic urban setting and create this overwhelming effect. In art of Bernini personification is essential. Every aspect of his art is given personality, is given life. Referring to his portraiture busts skill11 Bernini once said that “a grasp of it is not a game for children” and he believed that he was the best portrait sculptor who ever lived- and of course he was (Wallace 1970).Figures are dominant feature of his architecture of the colonnades as there is ninety six saints and martyrs statues on them (Fig.19). Bernini’s figures are alive. His capability of creating illusion and giving life to stone is well described by Rudolf Wittkower: “It is their human qualities, supported by the warmth of the surface treatment and the different texture,
19. Bernini, Statues on Colonnades, 1665-67
that create the impression of real and pulsing life” (Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque 1966). How would a pilgrim of the seventeenth century would experience St Peter’s architecture is critical in terms of understanding sequence of such dream-like reality in design of the court. First he crosses the Ponte Angelo while he is witness to the via Crucis – angles with Instruments of the Passion take the place of the traditional Stations of the Cross (Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque 1966). In words of Rudolf Wittkower:
Thus prepared, he approaches the mother church of Christianity. On entering the narrow street of the Borgo –recognizes the distance, exactly in his line of vision the entrance to the papal palace. Stepping of the Church, his eye meets the hosts of saints and martyrs, reassuring pillars of Faith. As he stands under the portico of St Peter’s the equestrian statute of Constantine, testimony of Christ’s conquest of the worldly empire, appears to his right like an apparition and, entering the church through the central door, he views a mirage between the dark-bronze columns over St Peter’s tomb, at the farthest end of the apse –the throne in which is vested the passing of the spiritual power of St. Peter and his successors.
The walk through the project emphasizes Bernini’s intention towards eliminating the barrier between the beholder and the architecture, between fiction and reality. In this creation of reality he was deeply convinced that “he was the tool of God” and his art came to him “through the grace of God” (Wittkower, Gianlorenzo Bernini 1955). It was not hard for Bernini to even place himself in God position as he said “all that we know comes from God and teaching means taking his place” (Wittkower, Gian Lorenzo Bernini: the sculptor of the Roman baroque 1966). Therefore St Peter’s for him is the stage for ultimate illusion; where metaphysical elements also participate in the drama. It is where Bernini, the God, directs the stage and enjoys the worshipers’ performance. In designing of the St Peter’s forecourt his love of theatrical illusion creation and giving life to the work of art, ascends to the extreme of placing himself in the role of divinity, designing the ultimate illusion stage, attracting real and supra-real worshipers and ultimately enjoying re-play of the “divine drama of giving life to stone”.